Last week I had the great good fortune to be invited to a conference called Festival of Faiths in Louisville, Kentucky. As the title implies, the conference had some spiritual and religious elements to it, but I would say that the prime focus was on identifying and thinking about the many challenges we face on earth these days. There was a large focus on both awareness and community, and I found these topics to be highly stimulating.
In the two days I was there I met and listened to many interesting people. Notable among them were Sheik Hamsa Yusuf, Gary Snyder, and Wendell Berry. Each of these individuals shines brightly and I would encourage you to expose yourselves to their ideas, maybe by reading their published works or watching them speak, in person of you can or on YouTube (//www.youtube.com/user/FestofFaiths) or the festival's website (www.festivaloffaiths.org).
I learned many things while there. There is a sea of garbage floating in the Pacific that is larger than Texas. The apparently forward thinking nation Mauritania has outlawed plastic bags and punishes offenders with a year in jail. Autism now strikes 1 in 50, up from 1 88 in 2013 and 1 in 10,000 in 1950. Mostly, this visit to Louisville enhanced my awareness and for that I am immeasurably grateful to my hosts who invited Marisol and I, to the people who shared their wisdom with us, and to the people who planned and executed this great event. It is so easy for us all to get into a rut of sorts, focusing so narrowly upon our lives, our jobs, our families, and our own issues that we rarely get outside of ourselves. It is when I’m able to get outside of my routine and explore that I find great growth, new ideas and information, and inevitably a broadened life perspective.
The opening evening of the festival was a “Call To Prayer” ceremony, and took place in a magnificent chapel inside the Cathedral of the Assumption in Louisville. While the speeches I listened to during the days that followed were memorable and filled with brilliant insights and interesting perspectives, it was this opening ceremony that really took the cake for me. That evening most of the world’s major religions were represented by local Louisville practitioners/leaders who displayed a sampling of their own religion’s call to prayer. The Cathedral’s Pastor summoned each of the performers to the pulpit in the most beautiful way. He would approach them and bow and then utter the magical words “I am sacred, and so are you.” Wouldn’t it be great if we said that, or at least silently acknowledged that, before each of our daily encounters?
The performances began with a trio representing Christianity singing a version of the hymn “Alleluia Chorus.” As I listened to their beautiful voices my mind wandered. I heard the word Hallelujah over and over in the hymn and wondered who else in the audience recognized its Hebrew origins and thought of the needless and counterproductive divisions that have existed between these two religions for so long. Next to perform were five Buddhist Monks, dressed very authentically. They chanted in sounds that were so deep and so guttural that Marisol commented that these were the sounds of the universe. I thought they also sounded like a group of cows, but who’s to say that cow sounds are not like those of the universe. The monks’ chants were accompanied by horns, cymbals and bells, and the combination put me into a deep trancelike meditation. I had never heard anything like it, least of all inside a Catholic church, or a Jewish synagogue (where I have more experience). I wondered how attractive services at either place would be if the monks were there too.
A group of Jews sang their call to prayer next, and being Jewish I must admit it was the least moving for me. I’m sure that this was not a reflection of the quality of the performance but instead a revelation that we humans need diversity. Fittingly it seemed, a Muslim man who chanted his call to prayer followed the Jewish group. For any of you who have been to a Muslim country, you may have heard this over the loudspeaker numerous (5) times per day. It is haunting and the singer’s voice and passion were enchanting. The Muslim chant was followed in order by a native American couple’s chant, which was accompanied by a large drum, and two people of the Baha’i faith, each singing a couple of cool songs.
The winner for me though was the final performance, which had about 10 young Hindus (9 girls and 1 boy), dressed in the most beautiful traditional Hindu garb, perform a sacred dance. I will say straight out that if this took place in a church or synagogue near me I’d be there weekly. The quality and complexity of the dance was amazing and the tight synchronization of the group betrayed many hours of serious practice on the part of the dancers. The eyes of the dancers were so present and searing, and communicated love in such an attractive manner that moved me to want to learn more about the Hindu religion. When it was over I fantasized about a religious and spiritual house where all of these beautiful traditions can be displayed and shared regularly. That is a church I’d belong to!
Here are some of the pearls I heard in Louisville that I felt worth sharing:
On “Purposefulness”: “We need to do things with intention, and to be aware of our intentions.”
On “Food”: “Those who produce our food need to have a spirituality and mindfulness that we must also have when we consume it.”
On “Land”: “Once a community’s connection to the land has been cut off its demise is certain.”
On “School Curriculum”: “No one knows enough about the future to know what will be relevant.”
On “Teaching our Kids”: “Teach etiquette. Make sure they say ‘please,’ and ‘thank you,’ and a prayer at meals.”
On “Organized Religion”: “It is a necessary evil. It is both necessary (imagine the chaos in the world without it) and evil (think of the distortions that have led to so many lives lost).
On “Maintaining our Consistency of Spirit”: “We should make everyplace we are a sacred place. This will be tough to do, if not impossible when working in certain companies.”
On “Technology and Luddite-ism”: “A machine that takes livelihood away should be opposed.”
On “Pessimism”: “The world will probably never get so bad that a well intentioned person couldn't help another person in need to improve his life a bit.”
On (a ray of) “Optimism”: “The world is much worse off than it was 50 years ago. Topsoil erosion, air quality, food, etc. But we couldn't have even had this conversation in Louisville a mere 20 years ago.”
This conference was special and, while I was so delighted to have been able to experience it with Marisol I was also saddened to think that too few people had this privilege. It was something that I’d have wished to share with all of you. Maybe next year in Louisville?